“Lear embarks on a harrowing journey through suffering to self-knowledge. At the end of the play he is a better and wiser man“
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According to the Greek Philosopher, Aristotle, tragedy is defined as being the story of a man of high standing, who possesses a tragic flaw, who brings about his own downfall and that of others, who must die with our sympathy. In many ways this statement epitomises the epic tale of King Lear by William Shakespeare. It also mirrors Lear’s haunting odyssey from intense personal suffering to in-depth knowledge and self awareness. It involves not only the physical suffering of destitution, exposure and cold but the accompanying mental anguish of filial ingratitude, remorse and madness. Lear marvellously passes through these stages of great suffering with heroic endurance. He garners a wisdom, which sees clearly the falseness and hypocrisy of his family. Moreover, he weeps tears for his unfair treatment of Cordelia. There is no doubt that the unmaking of Lear the King is the making of Lear the man.
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This entire question revolves around the journey of the central protagonist Lear. At the beginning of the play, he exhibits a myriad of weaknesses. In our first encounter with Lear, he presents himself as an esteemed and powerful man. His grandeur and presence as he walks on stage is tangible. His first words are an abrupt order to Gloucester: ‘Attend the lords France and Burgundy.’ His language bristles with commands and imperious statements. At this early stage of the play, the audience has nothing but contempt for this egocentric individual.
Lear makes it known that he wants to ‘shake all cares and business’ yet retain the name and all addition of being King. Lear’s utter foolishness is portrayed through the ‘love test’. ‘Which of you shall we say doth love us most?’ Lear has already divided the Kingdom ‘Know that we have already divided in three our kingdom.’ He is only conducting the love test to boost his ego. He wants to ‘prevent future strife,’ however, there is great irony to this as the love test is one of the main stimulants for the tragic events to come. Lear’s vanity and utter naivety at the beginning of the play, is the catalyst for his harrowing journey.
Lear cannot tolerate the notion that Cordelia will not respond as he wishes, ‘nothing’. Lear makes words his nemesis. He is gullible and easily flattered. Tragically Lear is unaware that he has been surrounded by sycophants, Goneril and Regan, for his whole life. ‘Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter.’ One of Lear’s biggest flaws is his inability to decipher between appearance and reality. In effect, he disowns his most faithful daughter, Cordelia. ‘I disclaim all paternal care.’ To add injury to injury, Lear also banishes Kent who attempts to make Lear see better. ‘Come not between this dragon and his wrath.’ Lear’s journey through the play will prove to be a bitter path toward the self knowledge that he so sadly lacks in the infancy of this drama.
The landmark for Lear’s transformation is the ‘filial ingratitude’ he receives off Goneril and Regan. Once in power, they immediately begin stripping him of the vestiges of power. ‘We must do something and i’ the heat.’ At this climatic point in the play we see glimpses that Lear is developing a sense of remorse and guilt. He professes, in reference to Cordelia, ‘ I did her wrong.’ Lear has noted a flash of insight into his own conduct, actions that he has come to regret. Both Regan and Goneril squander his respect and authority. ‘The old man and his people cannot be well — bestowed.’ When he is neglected by Goneril with the collusion of Regan, it is the first indication that Lear has lost more than just land and authority — and so too his means of emotional wellbeing. As Lear is thrown out into the ‘storm’ he begins to spiral into insanity. ‘Who is it that can tell me who I am?’ Some may argue that it is Goneril and Regan’s parasitic personality that initiates Lear’s downfall. However, I believe that this suffering and great mental anguish is a direct result of Lear’s megalomaniac, vainglorious nature at the beginning.
It is without question that Lear’s harrowing journey is not a straightforward one. After being abandoned by his daughters and enduring the tormenting storm Lear gains his greatest insights. Lear begins to gradually become more aware of others. We witness the first signs of change when Lear starts to realise how vulnerable human beings are: ‘poor naked wretches’. He undergoes a moment of realisation that he has not acted rightfully or taken care of his Kingdom. ‘O! I have taken too little care of this.’ We are now able to see that Lear is slowly moving from pride, egotism and spiritual blindness to understanding, love and insight. However, he is still blaming others for his problems. ‘I am a man more sinned against that sinning.’ Therefore, Lear still has a lot to do before he comes full circle. Shakespeare’s dramatic employment of pathetic fallacy expertly conveys the psychological ‘tempest’ that rages in Lear’s ‘mind’ and the trauma he must encounter before he becomes a wiser and better man.
Lear’s growing self - awareness becomes more apparent as he meets ‘Poor Tom’. Lear strips off his clothes as he becomes aware of the hollowness of materialistic possessions . ‘Off, off, you lendings.’ The King, self-centred for most of his life, now, through suffering learns a new selfless solicitude for the defenceless and exploited. ‘ Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel.’ The storm is indeed the most crucial point for Lear. It is here, in this exposure to the cleansing and liberating effects of the storm that much of Lear’s wisdom is gathered.
The next time we see Lear is in Act 4. He has spasmodic flashes of insight and wisdom in amidst the nonsensical and the irrational. ‘Go to, they are not men o' their words. They told me I was everything.’ Lear realises that his authority was an illusion, a false image. The ‘reason in madness’ paradox permeates this play. It unequivocally enhances the audiences enjoyment of watching this drama unravel. When Lear meets, the now eye-less Gloucester in Dover, he is a transformed man. Despite obvious madness he provides an adept analysis of appearance vs reality. ‘A man may see how this world goes with no eyes.’ He has penetrated appearance and arrived at reality.
One of the most unambiguous moments of the play where we see Lear’s transfiguration is when Cordelia’s men come looking for him. Lear is too ashamed to face her. He is suffering from guilt, thus is a changed and better man: ‘you shall get it by running.’ His values are clearer and his moral vision is restored.
When Lear is reunited with Cordelia his journey reaches its denouement. In sharp contrast to the regal, harsh language with which he disowned her the King now seeks forgiveness:‘ Pray you now, Forget and forgive. I am old and foolish,’ He has taken full responsibility, and he has acknowledged his flaws and follies. By offering to drink poison he shows true repentance. ‘If you have poison for me. I will drink it.’ He is redeemed. A better man has grown from an appalling individual.
Lear’s interlude of bliss does not last forever. Lear reaches his nadir as Cordelia dies. ‘She’s dead as earth.’ The death of his beloved daughter brings Lear’s journey to an unbearable pitch as he dies as a result of Cordelia’s untimely death, highlighting however, that the Lear at the end of this tragedy is the complete opposite to the Lear at the beginning: ’He is gone.’ The closing scenes ironically leave Lear with ‘nothing’. There is no discussion of the afterlife or hope for the future, this is it. The tragedy in this outcome is so profound that later productions altered the ending because it was too depressing. It suggests that there is no purpose or meaning to human life. In this play the just and loving Christian God is not present and in its place is the cruel Nature.
Lear embarks on a treacherous journey from ignorance to suffering to self-knowledge. Over the course of the journey he undergoes a radical metamorphosis. By the end of the play he is the very antithesis of the man we met at the beginning. However, throughout this epic odyssey Lear’s characteristic of hubris initiates the downfall of others as well as his own. Nevertheless, the hero's downfall has redemptive qualities: a lesson is taught and learned, Lear ends the play a better and wiser man. The audience experiences a sense of moral uplift at the end. As A.C. Bradley so perfectly put, ‘King Lear has again and again been described as Shakespeare's greatest work, the best of his plays, the tragedy in which he exhibits most fully his multitudinous powers; and if we were doomed to lose all his dramas except one, probably the majority of those who know and appreciate him best would pronounce for keeping King Lear.
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